Teacher’s Workshop on Iran
A Successful PAAIA Initiative in Educating American Educators
From July 8 to 11th, PAAIA sponsored the Summer Teachers Workshop, an annual event organized by the World Affairs Councils of America. Each year, twenty high school teachers from across the country are accepted to partake in a three-day emersion program concentrating on a particular region or country. This year the focus was Iran – its constitutional history, rich heritage, and perhaps even more pertinent to today’s political arena – insight into contemporary Iran. The lectures largely concentrated on the changing mentality of the Iranian population, all the while rooted in Iran’s dynamic history. Through the Workshop, the teachers were given a sense of a progressive Iranian population, one that seeks restored dialogue with the West.
Kicking off the workshop on Wednesday was a trip to the World Bank, where the teachers were exposed to the economic realities and challenges in the Middle East, including Iran. The teachers then visited the State Department for a talk by Sarah Groen, an Iran Desk Officer, on the current state of US/Iran relations.
In the afternoon, Mahnaz Afkhami – Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, Executive Director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and former Minister of State for Women’s Affairs in Iran – gave an incisive lecture on “Women in Iran.” Afkhami emphasized the universality of the female plight and stated that “women’s issues are all issues,” thus, the realization (or neglect) of women’s rights affects the well-being of any given society.
Following Afkhami the participants headed to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to view a photo-slide lecture on the “Children of the Iranian Revolution” by Iason Athanasiadia, a writer, photographer and television producer. His photographs provided visual evidence of the recent surge in redefining public space, the strengthened underground social scene in Iran, and the Iranian youth’s desire for a ‘sense of normalcy.’
On the second day of the workshop, scholar Afshin Molavi held a lecture entitled, “Pink Floyd, Persepolis, and the Pasdaran: Culture, Politics, and Globalization in contemporary Iran.” Molavi, the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran, began the lecture by saying, “Here we think of Iran as a geopolitical entity, when in reality, Iranians are more concerned with the ‘price of meat.’” In essence, Molavi iterated, the US media tends to aggrandize Iranian politics to extents that are not in accord with the prevailing sentiments of most in Iran.
Afterwards, Cyrus Amir-Mokri, a partner at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and a member of the Board of Directors of PAAIA, gave a lecture on Iran’s Constitutional History. He delved into Iran’s written constitution of 1906 which was inspired similar political movements in the West and in many respects modeled after the Belgian constitution. Notwithstanding its inspirational origins, Amir-Mokri stated, “Yes, there was a constitution; but, the way the Constitution was structured in terms of the balance of powers, was a recipe for disaster.”
The Workshop luncheon on the second day featured scholar Karim Sadjadpour speaking on the “Contemporary History of Iran.” Sadjadpour is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as well as a leading researcher on Iran and a regular contributor to BBC World TV and radio, CNN, National Public Radio, and PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He broached weighty subjects such as Iran’s vision for the Middle East at large, impetuses behind the nuclear concern, the paradigm in US/Iran relations, and Iranian domestic issues (such as gas cards and censorship). He ended this session by alluding to the possibility of change; for after having lived under a repressive Islamic society, Sadjadpour asserted, the population certainly has a “political maturity.”
On Thursday afternoon, Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak , Founding Director of the Center for Persian Studies at University of Maryland, gave an inspirational speech on Persian Literature, touching on its history, as well as its philosophical and linguistic underpinnings and trends after the Islamic conquest of Iran and during the past 1100 years. Dr Karimi-Hakkak supplemented his analysis with excerpts from major figures in Iran’s literary past and present, including Rumi and Forough Farokhzad.
On Friday, the last day of this year’s Workshop, the teachers toured the Smithsonian Institution to see an exhibit on Arts of the Islamic World. The exhibit served as an appropriate finale for the workshop; the participants were able to enjoy relics from Iran’s past at a world-renowned institution and a mainstay of Washington DC’s international attraction.
The feedback from this year’s attendees reinforces the notion that the image often portrayed of Iran, Iranians, and Iranian Americans is inaccurate, and suggests a need for image building initiatives being undertaken by PAAIA and other community organizations. Allyson Knanishu, a teacher from Peoria, Illinois said that the workshop provided her with a great sense of understanding about Iran which she plans on taking back to her classroom.
Greg Adams, a high school teacher from Oregon, also gained some valuable insights. Having previously visited the Middle East, he subconsciously expected Iran to be similar to other countries in the region. However, in viewing an Iranian movie during the workshop he realized that Iran is a different country with a different socio-political context. “As I watched the film, I realized that not all Middle Eastern countries are similar as we often have a tendency to think.”
Even participants with previous familiarity with the country praised the workshop and admitted to having gained further knowledge to take back to the classroom. Crystal Kadivar, a language teacher who is married to an Iranian American and who lived in Iran for several years, gained new ideas for examples and lessons to take to her students, and is now considering initiating Farsi language classes as a way of promoting understanding of the Iranian culture to students in her hometown in Tennessee.
The Teacher’s Workshop on Iran, which was featured in a CNN Report on July 14, was a unique opportunity for providing a more positive and balanced perspective on Iran and Iranians, and by extension Iranian Americans, to the participating teachers from across the country who will then pass on what they learn to their colleagues and students for years to come. PAAIA sincerely thanks the World Affairs Councils of America and the many distinguished speakers who made this workshop possible.